EARLY on Wednesday, August 10, 1949, a clear, sunny morning, Myles O’Connor, the night watchman on duty in the Savoy Cinema on Patrick Street, heard a crashing noise which he at first took to be the sound of a lorry driving over a street manhole.
His curiosity aroused, he investigated further, exiting the back of the premises which brought him onto Drawbridge Street. He was horrified to discover that the sound was not caused by passing traffic, but was the result of a blazing roof falling in.
The factory of Messrs Booth and Fox, eiderdown, quilt and down clothing manufacturers and feather merchants, with a large footprint on Emmet Place and Lavitt’s Quay, was burning furiously.
As the roof collapsed, the fire spread rapidly from the west side of the building in Emmet Place — directly opposite the Cork Opera House — down Lavitt’s Quay, involving shop after shop.
His 999 call was logged at Sullivan’s Quay Fire Station at 5.35am and within minutes the brigade, under acting Second Officer John F. Crowley, was en route to the biggest fire witnessed in Cork since Grant’s on the Grand Parade in 1942.
It would involve most of the block of buildings bounded by Emmet Place, Lavitt’s Quay, Perry Street, and Drawbridge Street.
Booth and Fox was founded by John Peter Booth and John Fox in 1825. Specialising in down, feather and quilt manufacturing, their famous down quilt was patented in 1841 and soon monopolised the home market.
Eyelets fitted in the quilts for the purpose of ventilation were unique for the time, and the firm’s commercial travellers built up a successful export trade to many countries, including North and South America.
The company supplied the quilts for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, and won the contract for a special order for her Golden Jubilee in 1887.
Besides their headquarters in Emmet Place, Booth and Fox had three principal centres in Britain: at Hatton Garden in London, Glasgow, and Manchester. In 1944, five years before the Cork blaze, the Manchester factory was totally destroyed during a German air-raid.
Such manufactories, however, with their products generating layers of highly-flammable dust, were notoriously susceptible to fires, and, in March, 1919 — 100 years ago this year — a bad fire broke out in the drying chamber of the factory. As luck would have it, the Cork fire chief, Captain Alfred J. Hutson, happened to be nearby and quickly took control of the situation while the brigade was being summoned.
Substantial damage was caused, however, necessitating the rebuilding of the effected portion of the complex with ‘state of the art’ materials.
Some 30 years later, the ‘Fire Fiend’ decided to pay the factory another visit, this time with even more devastating consequences.
Now, as ‘Jack’ Crowley, with his two fire engines and ten firefighters, pulled up on Lavitt’s Quay, a daunting task lay before them. As well as Booth and Fox’s, the Shilling Stores, V. P. Ltd (dyers and cleaners), T. A. Sutton (saddlers), J. A. Kelly, (electricians), Mulcahy Bros (chandlers and hardware merchants) and T. L. Egan and Co (surgical requisites and optical manufacturers) were all involved.
At the rear of these shops, a factory where Egan’s produced optical fittings was blazing, together with a number of stores, and practically all the buildings along the western side of Perry Street. On the fourth side of the block, bounded by Drawbridge Street, the residents in the affected area were hastily evacuated.
From the start, it was apparent that serious damage to the entire block was inevitable. Little could be done to save the buildings already blazing on the brigade’s arrival, and all efforts were concentrated on preventing the spread of fire to the houses in Drawbridge Street and the shops at the eastern side of the block along Lavitt’s Quay.
As the fire raged overhead, an old bonding-house cellar with a vaulted roof withstood the flames which roared all round it. The vault — selected during the Emergency years as the possible location for a large underground air-raid shelter capable of accommodating 500 people, but never built — was jam-packed with valuable bespoke furniture and mahogany, the property of Messrs O’Connell, the famous furniture makers who specialised in classic Cork designs. The stock escaped unharmed.
The Cork Examiner recorded a close call by two members of the brigade, Tom Hayes and Donal O’Brien:
“Two firemen had a narrow escape. They entered with a hose, which they intended to take to the upper floors, but when they tried to return they found the stairs blazing. Eventually, a ladder was run up to a window by some of their comrades and their rescue was effected. “
Although the newspapers reported that ‘there was a plentiful water supply and pressure was excellent’, Second Officer Crowley did not propose to rely completely on the small diameter water mains in the vicinity of the fireground: Lavitt’s Quay (6in), Emmet Place and Drawbridge Street (4in). High water, he knew, was at 7.34am and he planned to take full advantage of the flood current by making the major pumps down to the river.
As the city awoke, thousands congregated along the quays to watch the early-morning spectacle. One spectator with more than a passing interest in the operation was the Chief of the New York Fire Department, Peter Loftus.
The 51-year-old, a native of Ballina, Co. Mayo, was staying with his brother-in-law, T. T. O’Sullivan, TD, in Cork when news of the fire was brought to him. He immediately dressed and set off for the fireground, maintaining a discreet distance. An Examiner hack, however, quickly sniffed him out, scenting a ‘human interest’ angle as reported in the following day’s paper:
U.S Fire Chief’s Tribute to Brigade
Mr Loftus is on holiday in Cork with his family, before proceeding on a month’s inspection tour of fire brigades in London, Edinburgh and other cities. He paid high tributes to the manner in which Cork Fire Brigade dealt with the outbreak. The fire, he said, was one that would be regarded as a major outbreak in the largest city of the world, and the methods of the Cork firemen in dealing with it would have done credit to a brigade of much smaller size.
“When he inspected the fire, he was surprised at the progress made by such a small body of men who had only limited apparatus at their disposal, and although he thought Cork should have a much larger brigade, he felt that the job could not possibly have been more efficiently dealt with. Their job was all the more creditable in view of the fact that the outbreak was what could be described as a horizontal fire involving low buildings. A vertical fire would quickly burn itself out, but a horizontal fire was far more difficult to quell, and he thought that Officer Crowley and his men had done excellent work.
“Later, Chief Loftus visited Sullivan’s Quay Fire Station where he took the parade and complimented the on-duty staff on their tactics. In New York, he asserted, such a conflagration would warrant an attendance of at least 200 firemen and upwards of 40 fire engines!”
Unknown to the Examiner reporter, however, or anyone else in Cork, Loftus had a very good reason to enjoy an extended vacation in Ireland in that summer of 1949, for he had just come through the most bruising experience of his long service with the New York Fire Department.
Loftus joined the Fire Service in 1920 and swiftly moved up the ranks. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1925, Captain in 1929, Battalion Chief in 1934, and Deputy Chief in 1938. Placed first on the Civil Service List in 1948, he reached the pinnacle of his career by becoming Chief of Department on August 1, 1948 — a year before the Cork blaze.
Loftus was highly regarded by his peers as a ‘true firefighter’, being cited on several occasions. At the age of 60, when Chief, he rescued from certain death a fireman buried under the collapse at a Brooklyn factory fire.
In December, 1948, however, just four months into his term of office, an incident occurred at a fire station with which he had nothing to do. Following a complaint from a member of the public, he was charged with dereliction of duty by allowing a raucous Christmas party to take place at the fire station of Engine Company 33 on Great Jones Street.
Alcohol and actresses from nearby Broadway were alleged to be present. An accident involving a fire engine and a civilian vehicle outside the station brought the party to light.
Although Loftus was not personally involved — he was at home with his family in the suburbs — it was regarded as ‘happening on his watch’. After suspension and departmental trial, however, he was exonerated and returned to duty.
He was instrumental in implementing substantial improvements in working conditions for New York’s firefighters, including the reduction of the working week to 45 hours from the wartime 84 hours; increasing a firefighter’s salary from $3,420 in 1946 to $4,150 in 1949, and increasing annual leave from 21 days to 30 days.
Loftus retired in 1955 and passed away, aged 70, in 1964 in Flushing, Queen’s County, New York, and was buried with full Fire Service honours. He was survived by his wife, Mrs Margaret (née Daly) Loftus, and daughter Helen.
The estimated fire loss (excluding consequential losses) for the businesses destroyed in the Cork blaze 70 years ago was put at £102,000: northwards of €4 million in today’s currency.
Booth and Fox reopened in 1952 opposite the Cork Opera House, but sadly, some of the smaller firms did not survive the fire.
One that did, and has gone from strength to strength over the years, is Egan’s Opticians, established in 1922 and still occupying the same footprint today.
Around the corner, the Perry Street Market Café stands on the location of the underground vaults once destined to hold up to 500 people.
Booth and Fox suffered a third serious fire seven years later, on October 23, 1956. In 1963, the Emmet Place premises was put up for sale and bought in trust by a Dublin solicitor.
The firm later merged with the Irish Feather Company which, however, was not destined to last. By the early 1970s, Booth and Fox were operating out of a much scaled-down entity on Drinan Street, off Sullivan’s Quay, in Cork city.